The suture model for middle cerebral artery occlusion (MCAO) was used to induce acute ischemia in rats remotely within a magnetic resonance (MRI) scanner. Serial MR diffusion weighted imaging (DWI) was performed during remote MCAO using an echo planar imaging technique. MR perfusion imaging was performed before and after occlusion using the bolus tracking technique. Transient apparent diffusion coefficient (ADC) changes were detected in six of seven rats as early as 2.7 +/- 1.5 min post MCAO. ADC values declined transiently to 70.1 +/- 6.0% of control and recovered to 95.5 +/- 6.8% of control within 3.3 +/- 2.9 min. These ADC changes propagated bidirectionally away from the ischemic core with a speed of 3.0 +/- 1.1 mm/min. Transient ADC decreases only occurred in ischemic areas characterized by moderately decreased tissue perfusion. Propagation toward cortical regions with severe tissue perfusion deficits was not detected. DWI can detect the earliest dynamic, reversible ADC changes in the ischemic tissue. The speed of propagation of the decreasing ADC wave, the waveform characteristics, and the occurrence in moderately perturbated tissue are compatible with cortical spreading depression.